Sunday 16 June 2019

TV review: It's pretty pointless to criticise Today with Maura and Daithi - it is what it is

Cheery hosts: Dáithí Ó Sé and Maura Derrane on Today
Cheery hosts: Dáithí Ó Sé and Maura Derrane on Today

Damian Corless

Afternoon TV is a strange place. In the 1960s, when television first came to Ireland, a great many more women were stuck in the house all day than is now the case. The lack of women in the workforce during that decade can be gauged by the fact that one in 20 females in the Irish workplace was a nun.

Men ran the broadcasting service, and since those same men were out at work all day, they saw no good reason to show programmes for housewives or children. Teilifís Éireann opened at five o'clock on Saturdays, later on weekdays.

The attitude of Ireland's broadcasters hadn't much modernised by the time they eventually gave us daytime TV in the 1970s. The afternoon flagship was Going Strong hosted by Bunny Carr and was as geriatric as its title suggests.

And now, filling the same slot in the broadcasting doldrums we have Today with Maura and Daithi (RTÉ1). It's pretty pointless to criticise the frothy show or its cheery hosts. It is what it is. On the other hand, Pointless (BBC1) is a brilliant quiz show made less brilliant by a pair of smarmy presenters, Alexander Armstrong and Richard Osman.

Maura and Daithi perfectly fits the stereotype brilliantly parodied by The Simpsons with 'Afternoon Yak'. Typical of the fluff featured this week was an item on why Irish men are the least good looking on the planet, while Irish women are amongst the most beautiful.

Maura and Daithi did turn up one fascinating item. A spokesperson for the Concern aid agency revisited the foundation of the enterprise exactly 50 years ago in 1968. The organisation started out under the title Africa Concern, and the target of its efforts was war-torn Biafra which had split from Nigeria, bringing down a terrible wrath. Two million Biafrans were killed in the conflict which flashed across Irish TV screens on a nightly basis. The Holy Ghost Fathers of Ireland mobilised a huge aid effort.

You could not go to the shops without being reminded of Biafra. That reminder, on every counter was the 'black babies box' featuring a black baby. The mere thought of such a thing today would induce squirming, but those boxes had an iconic place in mid-20th century Irish society.

That place was on the counter of every newsagent, every drapers, every grocers and at every church entrance. The fascination with black babies by Irish society began in the 1930s as a proud but penniless newly independent nation fastened on one of the very few good news stories it had to tell - that of its Catholic missionaries.

It was something warm and exotic to feel a part of. You could even say it was trendy. In a Lonely Hearts column from 1933, 'Black Baby' from Dublin described herself as "a girl of exceptional ability, sincere, earnest and interesting". After reciting a long list of personal qualities, she signed off: "Regards her work as a stop-gap occupation until matrimony claims her".

The slogan 'A Penny for the Black Babies' was as much part of the lexicon as 'Put a Tiger in Your Tank' or 'Vote, Vote, Vote for De Valera'.

Then, almost overnight, sometime in the late 1970s, the boxes vanished from sight. The sincerely felt special relationship that the Irish people believed they had with the 'black babies' became the love that dared not speak its name.

In the early 1960s a great wave of decolonisation swept Africa, and the word started coming back to Ireland that maybe the black babies box was beginning to seem like a remnant of an old-fashioned patronising colonialism, however well intentioned.

A road paved with good intentions had come to an end but the message took time to filter down - in 1970 a greyhound called Black Baby finished a disappointing fifth of six runners at Shelbourne Park. As the 1980s dawned, however, the nation was ready to slip into a state of collective amnesia.

Limitless (RTÉ2) is a gas, although why the national broadcaster is screening it way past the witching hour is anybody's guess. Although if you were to guess, you might suspect it has something to do with drugs. Starring Jake McDorman as Brian Finch, a slacker musician whose life takes a remarkable turn, it began life as a novel, The Dark Fields, by Dubliner Alan Glynn before becoming a powerful big-screen thriller starring Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro. The spin-off TV series recasts Cooper in occasional cameos as a bad senator who has ambitions of moving into the Oval Office. What distinguishes the TV series from the movie is that it injects blasts of unexpected comedy involving surreal fantasy sequences.

The storyline pivots around the central character's exposure to a miracle drug, NZT, which unlocks the full potential of his brain, turning him from slouchy zero to problem-solving hero. Brian's recurring dilemma is that the evil senator has a secret hold over him and expects him to spy on his new employers, the FBI. A neat blend of suspenseful drama and comedy - or dramedy, as its makers would call it - Limitless has great fun playing around with the format.

So too does Patrick Melrose (Sky Atlantic), which also revolves around drugs and enjoys itself enormously. Can Benedict Cumberbatch do no wrong? The answer seems to be no. His portrayal of an aristocratic heroin addict is utterly compelling. He inhabits the character. Patrick Melrose is very scary and deeply funny.

Mike Murphy, the original presenter of Winning Streak (RTÉ1), once disclosed that the unbreakable rule of the show is that absolutely no skill is permitted. Enough said.

Damian Corless

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